On a Monday morning during Jan Plan, Katerina Faust ’14 started her day with a walk in Colby’s Perkins Arboretum. There was snow on the ground, and freezing rain was falling. The temperature was 19 degrees. She placed a small plastic speaker on a mound of frozen earth and took out her notebook. “This will take about thirty minutes,” she said. “You really shouldn’t talk or move.”
For the next half hour, she stood still, eyes trained on the branches of fir and pine above, and she occasionally played a brief prerecorded chickadee call. A biology major from Bainbridge Island, Wash., Faust is trying to get a better idea of how things like temperature and tree cover affect chickadees and other birds.
The conditions she works under aren’t always comfortable, but ornithologist and Arey Professor of Biosciences Herb Wilson, who oversees the project, said her work could be a valuable addition to what scientists know about black-capped chickadee winter ecology. Additionally, because chickadee calls are often used to assess the populations of other bird species, knowing what may skew those numbers up or down could yield more accurate counts in the future, he said. “She’s doing something that has implications for a methodology used by a wide range of researchers.”
For her study Faust carefully selected 13 spots in which to capture data about bird behavior. They are all on campus, but some are in areas that seem like deep woods. She hits each spot about twice weekly to run through a careful schedule of waiting quietly, playing a quick call, and taking note of what happens. “I try to write down everything I observe as I observe it,” she said, demonstrating a waterproof notepad and special pen that allow her to record data in the cold, wet conditions a field researcher expects in Maine.
Philanthopy at Work
In choosing a college, Katerina Faust ’14 found Colby’s student research opportunities attractive, but she knew she’d need solid financial assistance to make it work. That help came in the form of the Colby Twentieth Century Alumni Scholarship Aid fund. Created with a $1-million commitment in 1994 and now, with subsequent gifts, valued at more than $5 million, the fund has made Colby possible for 23 students. “It was a major deciding factor,” Faust said, “because I wouldn’t graduate with tons of loans. That kind of debt would make it pretty hard to keep going in graduate school.”
Wearing a parka, knit hat, and fleece-lined boots, Faust took her mittens off only to write or swipe her smartphone to instruct the Bluetooth-connected speaker to play the calls. Different calls have diverse effects—a low threat call might elicit a response from other birds, while a territorial call can clear chickadees out of the area. Some calls she uses she recorded on Mayflower Hill using a microphone setup. “Basically I walk around in the woods with a big plastic cone and a recorder box,” Faust said. “I get some weird looks from other people when I go out.”
This isn’t Faust’s first foray into serious ornithology. Last summer she lived on Eastern Egg Rock, a seven-acre treeless island in Maine’s Muscongus Bay, to observe puffins for the Audubon Society. She intends to continue her study in the biological sciences in graduate school.
When Faust moved to her second spot of the morning, it was still 19 degrees. The wind was strong, and the freezing rain came down faster and in bigger drops. A red-tailed hawk was circling the rugby field when she emerged from the woods and set up under an apple tree. “They’ll usually come right into this tree,” she said, looking up at the branches just over her head.
For a half hour she waited, but no songbirds appeared. The hawk or the weather might have deterred them. “I’ll try to come back some other time, to see if the hawk had an effect,” she said, brushing snow off her speaker for the walk back to Arey Life Sciences Building, where she would she would plan her next foray.
“But it’ll have to be when the weather conditions are similar, unfortunately.”